That bewildered double-take, like they’ve misheard. It’s part disbelief, part revulsion, like when you find a Band-Aid in your Whopper, or when your wife surprises you with The Vagina Monologues tickets.
The egocentric statements follow.
“I can’t watch that stuff.”
“That crap disgusts me.”
“I can’t watch that as a believer.”
And then comes the question.
“You like that?”
It’s quickly followed by the abbreviated follow-up, as if they no longer have enough breath to repeat the sentence.
Yes, ma’am/sir/Your Honor. I sure do.
I love horror.
You oughta see it when I tell them I write it.
Yes, Virginia, there is a vast vile world out there chock full of psychos, vampires, swamp creatures, demons, zombies…
And I love it. The classics, the new school, the suspenseful, the gory—all of it is fine by me, as long as the story is intriguing, the performances are engaging and the monsters are terrifying. [Okay, so maybe I’ve effectively eliminated half of the genre with those stipulations, but even the schlocky stuff can be fun.]
From the time I was a wee tike, I’ve been fascinated with the eerie, and had a fair share of terrifying toys and comics to prove it. I read my first Stephen King book at age ten (Cujo) and a copy of Jay Anson’s account of The Amityville Horror, which mysteriously appeared at my house following a neighborhood yard sale. Carrie and The Shining soon followed. It wasn’t long before I was scouring my school library for anything with blades or goblins on it. Much to my chagrin, I quickly learned that the public school system in this country tends to frown on making such fare available to those who are barely old enough to require deodorant. Thanks a lot, Federal Government.
I wrote, directed, starred in and built the sets for a five-minute horror “public service announcement play” for my fellow sixth graders which headlined that year’s Fall Festival. I was also in charge of special effects, ‘cause not just anyone can splatter green slime across a refrigerator box backdrop and leak fake blood from walls without spraying the cafetorium stage carpet.
In middle school, I got my first taste of horror films (Children of the Corn being the biggie that stands out in my mind—notice a pattern?), as up until then my mother was pretty diligent in her efforts to keep me away from the old blood and guts (incidentally, she was a huge fan of the original Dark Shadows. She prefers her spooky light on the ewwwky).
I was immediately hooked and soon began my courtship of the dark side of celluloid.
I scarfed up Fangoria magazines (the first and best horror cinema journal—yep to me, it’s a journal—out there) like they were canon, watching my mother cringe with each new cover out-grossing the one that had come the month before. When I walked into a local book shop in my tiny home town and asked if they carried Fango, the owner looked at me like I’d grown a third head. “I don’t carry that mess,” he said, and quickly the questions followed, as he knew me to be the nice, quiet, straight-laced son of a Methodist minister (oh, I forgot to mention—it’s my Dark Shadows mom who’s the preacher. I love a good plot twist).
By the time I was fifteen, I could tell you the director and makeup effects supervisors for just about any horror movie you could name. While other kids were meeting with their guidance counselors to map out a career in accounting or engineering, I was busy trying to convince them (and my parents) that I would be the next great horror FX maestro and they all needed to find a way to get me to the proper art school so the world would not suffer if I were to become a mere senior manager of a widget factory.
But once reality set in (and some very wise people put some very heavy feet down), I realized that I had neither the resources, nor the talent to pursue a career in monster makeup.
But I still had the movies. And I kept watching, cringing every time another unnecessary sequel was optioned, cheering whenever something truly creepy and original debuted. And I’d have enthusiastic conversations with fellow fans about the best villains and the craziest kills.
And then it would happen.
I’d run my big fat mouth to the wrong person.
“I thought you were a Christian. What are you doing watching that garbage?”
When I wrote my first short story three years ago (which spent a year in limbo till a publisher bit), I mentioned it in passing to one of my clients who seemed to always be enthused about all of my less- mundane side projects. She was a fellow Christian who was a veritable wealth of Biblical knowledge, particularly in the realm of prophecy, so she wasn’t a stranger to some of the more supernatural things out there. But when I broke down the plot for her, it was like that exponential head had torn through my trapezius once again.
“Horror? Oh my gosh. I never let my kids watch that. They’re grown and I still tell them not to watch it. I told them I’d rather them watch porn.”
So that conversation got awkward quickly.
Things weren’t ever quite the same after that. We still treated each other just as nicely, but often our conversation was laced with the caveat of “that creepy stuff you like” or “that demon stuff you watch,” which was always punctuated by a disappointed look.
It tempered how I interacted with others, especially once I started writing more. To this day, only a couple of folks at my church know about my horror hobby. It’s sometimes easier just to not get into it. I’m not ashamed by it, but I get tired of defending my position.
So what is my position?
For me, horror is an escape. It’s an escape from the real horrors I see on the news every day—and sometimes in my own neighborhood. In horror, you know who the bad guys are; there’s no guessing. Despite their masks, horror villains only have one face behind them. They lay all their cards on the table and make no apologies. If your agendas clash, well, make sure to check the choke on the chainsaw and let the limbs fall where they may. By the end of the night, they may survive for the sequel, but only if you let them. You still have the power to turn the conflict off if it gets too heated. Not so with reality.
In reality, I can’t simply walk away when the unstoppable, evil world breathes down my neck. I can’t turn the channel or leave the theater when I can’t stop screaming. With reality, I have to face all the gross stuff head-to-horrid-head and hope I come away in one piece. In horror, even the ugliest, most reprehensible evil usually gets it comeuppance; eventually the sequels end. Not so in life. Too often, the real villains walk away unscathed, despite my (admittedly unwarranted and un-Christ-like) desire for justice and judgment.
The far-fetched fantasy of most horror helps me forget the all-too-real wickedness of the all-too-real world.
Or at least it usually does.
In September 2009, a dear friend—one of my former Sunday-school teachers-turned-pastor—was brutally murdered, along with his wife and daughter, in a heinous, cowardly attack that rivaled the worst Hollywood has ever produced. Just a few years prior, I’d helped my friend and his family move into the house where they were killed. It was two blocks up the street from where I’d lived—where, at the time—my ex-wife and son lived. Horror hit home that day, like never before.
And I walked away from all horror, especially slasher films, for a long time. I just couldn’t bear to watch anymore.
Eventually, I returned, simply because of my love for the genre. Horror movies didn’t cause my friend to lose his life (though the media was quick to point out the killer was a fan). After all, I’ve watched more of the stuff than a lot of people and I’ve never come close to acting out such scenarios in real life. And not one dollar of my ticket prices went to support the man who killed my friend’s life. Horror wasn’t to blame for his death, and my love of horror didn’t make me complicit in his murder. It took more than a few spiritual wrestling matches with my conscience to get to that point, and maybe it’s weak rationalization on my part, but it’s where I am and I’m fine with that.
And now, I look for the message in the films, more than just the mayhem.
When I first approached Jacob Sahms with my idea for ScreamFish, his words to me were, “as long as you can show me how it relates to the Gospel, I’m in.” Week after week, I look at horror in a new light—hoping Jesus may show up somewhere in the darkness. And honestly, sometimes it can be a daunting task. Sometimes, He’s just not there. But I think the important thing is that I continue to look, as we all should, amidst the horrors of our full-color 3D everyday lives. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to see Him when we we’re confronted with so much real-life wickedness. But we must continue to watch, as I do. He’ll show up.
Even if it’s not until Part 7.